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The images from Venice that traveled around the world after the Biennale in November 2019 seemed almost tailor-made for the Instagram age: tourists wheeling their suitcases through a flooded Piazza San Marco, residents in hip waders made of trash bags slogging through the flood alongside wooden gangways that offered a labyrinthine refuge for dry feet. These photos were not created with art in mind, but rather as documentation of the impact of the annual acqua alta reaching a miserable new record of nearly two meters in depth. Unlike elsewhere, the cause of the flooding here was less climate change than the deferred completion of floodgates at the head of the lagoon.
The fifty-eighth edition of the oldest of all biennales had seemingly anticipated this kind of catastrophe: the impact of population growth on ecosystems—keyword: Anthropocene—was one of the overarching topics behind curator Ralph Rugoff’s title May You Live in Interesting Times. It is a reference to a 1936 speech by British politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner Austen Chamberlain, who in turn was quoting a saying ostensibly of Chinese origin. “Chamberlain’s description of reeling from calamity to catastrophe might sound uncannily familiar as today’s news cycle seemingly spins from crisis to crisis,” Rugoff writes in the exhibition catalog’s sole text of notable length (22). These worldwide crises, Rugoff continues, tie into increasing global warming, the reemergence of nationalism, the rising digitalization of communication, and the widening gap between rich and poor. Yet the works were in no way solely intended to illustrate these political, social, ecological, and economic topics, but rather to open the viewer’s eyes toward the “interesting” as part of an enlightening corrective.
As usual, the Biennale was divided into three sections at two locations: the twenty-nine pavilions of the Giardini presented the art of individual nations in the manner of a traditional world’s fair. The largest building among them, once the Italian pavilion, now housed the “Proposition B” element of Rugoff’s exhibit. “Proposition A” was located in the impressive halls of the nearby Arsenale, the former shipyard for the Republic of Venice that since 1999 has been a permanent component of the Biennale. Rugoff made convincing use of this split central exhibition for his own programmatic purposes: the same seventy-nine artists appeared in both the Giardini and the Arsenale, organized into working groups that differ, at times greatly, in their formal, material, and technical composition. As such, highly productive contrasts emerged between the two sites, allowing for an artistic oeuvre that appeared at times as two-faced as Janus.
The most notable examples of this could be observed in the pieces by Jesse Darling and by Nicole Eisenman. At the Arsenale, Darling presented a collection of red molded seats for first graders with identically colored, dangling cloth bands and oddly elongated black metal legs. One did not need to know the title March of the Valedictorians to see a tragicomic ensemble alluding to elitist differences in attitude. At the Giardini, Darling presented a cabinet of Christian-like devotional objects dedicated to the legend of Saint Jerome. Below this was a drawing of the saint’s symbol: a childlike lion, enhanced with gold leaf and fixed ephemerally into a frame by brown tape. Eisenman’s contribution to “Proposition A” consisted of seven odd busts with titles such as American Gothic or The General, which—matching the Janus theme—ranged through the realms of Cubism and Brutalism, Pablo Picasso and Eduardo Paolozzi. Styrofoam imitations of cast steel, the blow-up of a nose ring in metallic purple, and black spray-painted eye sockets thwarted the rhetoric of the patriarchy. “Proposition B,” by contrast, showed Eisenman in an entirely different medium, namely her much more famous “bad painting” of pseudonaive figurative narrations. Eisenman and Darling deftly combined art historical reference, artisanal skill, and political humor into a wealth of artistic forms and formats.
In general, both solitary sculptures and large-format painting were heavily represented. What could be considered as a regress into conventional media conforming to the market was at the same time comprehensible as a retreat from overly conceptual art. Rarely in past Biennales has anthropomorphism or even the human body been topical in this way. Entertainment, a rhetorical means in some works, was also harnessed as a vehicle for the “interesting,” such as in installations by Alex Da Corte, Cyprien Gaillard, and the collective Slavs and Tatars. This statement applies less to the bitter seriousness offered by works from Teresa Margolles and especially the most scandalous piece of the Biennale: Christoph Büchel’s parading the wreck of a ship that had dragged over seven hundred refugees to their deaths in 2015 along the docks of the Arsenale.
Given the Biennale’s low budget, Rugoff was forced to work with existing items that had already been seen elsewhere. Financial support from globally operating galleries led to many established names on the list of artists, a counterpoint to the diversity that was otherwise being sought, and not just in terms of nationality. Consequently, this left little room for the marginalized, ephemeral, and unknown. Among the exceptions were photo portraits from nocturnal Calcutta by Soham Gupta, market stalls with self-created merchandise by Zhanna Kadyrova, a referentially critical archive by Lara Favaretto, and a sculpted cow on rails by Nabuqi. The majority of pieces, however, were expensive productions with perfect staging—which at least satisfied the expectations of the art tourists. Everything had a bit of that contemporary art look.
Rugoff, the director of London’s Hayward Gallery, seemed to steer toward consensus and compromise. The course of the exhibition was well structured and offered a diverse interplay between artistic media. Wisely spaced walls within the rooms presented films and videos, while the historical walls of the Arsenale were used to hang paintings and photos on mounted chipboard; the labeling of the works did not place excessive demands on the viewer, either. While the curational concept of the bisection was a new one for the Biennale, it was hardly novel in the annals of major international art exhibitions. For example, Catherine David’s Documenta X from 1997 organized older and newer works by the same artists to provide historical context, while the most recent Documenta from Adam Szymczyk (2017) divided itself between Athens and Kassel with the same pool of artists. Rugoff takes neither the risks of Szymczyk—whose choices may have contributed to financial disaster—nor those of David, whose “retroperspektive” struggled with accusations of being nonsensual and intellectualist.
Unlike the weighty readers that often serve as the textual foundation for large group exhibitions, the catalog for May You Live in Interesting Times proves light fare. Alongside Rugoff’s pieces, which as expected vacillate between press release and essay, there are instructive articles about the participating artists, framed—as befits the two “Propositions”—with photos of their pieces in the studio or in other exhibitions. The second volume, barely substantial enough to quote, is dedicated to the country pavilions and “Collateral Events,” posing urgent questions about the future of that sort of book format: after significant use, not just the dust jacket but also the binding of the book fell off, and by the next Biennale one can expect this one-time exhibition souvenir piece to be sold for a loss. A spirit of innovation in terms of conveying image and text as well as documentation of an exhibition is part of the responsibility for sustainable curation (leaving aside discussion of the materials, logistics, and air traffic for personnel related to the exhibition itself).
Which returns us to the topic of the Anthropocene, specifically in the country pavilions. Although the sculptural anecdotes by Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys (Belgium) and the gangs performing dances in films by Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca (Brazil) were tremendously humorous and pointed, Rugilé Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė, and Lina Lapelytė (Lithuania) were the winners of the national competition. The clear reason for this was climate change, which brought media attention to their works. Lithuania made a virtue of necessity: with no space in either the Giardini or the Arsenale and therefore forced (like thirty-five other countries) to move into the city itself, the country cleverly ushered visitors into a forgotten restricted zone of the navy. A makeshift two-story structure near the waters of the Arsenale then became an opera house in which the public could look out from the encircling gallery onto the performance. The singers, dressed in swimming trunks and standing on sand that had been trucked in, raised their voices against an environmental catastrophe. Alongside Jimmie Durham, who earned a lifetime achievement award, and Arthur Jafa, who was tapped for best contribution to Rugoff’s exhibition, Barzdžiukaitė, Grainytė, and Lapelytė earned the Golden Lion for best national pavilion. The insight of their opera Sun & Sea (Marina) was nevertheless debatable—its transparent criticism appeared more or less preprogrammed to find resonance with visitors, as there were unlikely to be many climate change deniers in this audience. Even so, the Lithuanian pavilion offered manifestations of what makes the Venice Biennale so deserving of a visit, and not just in 2019: it provides a powerful and surprising juxtaposition of contemporary art against an enchanting yet problematic backdrop reflecting both the historical and the present.
Translated from the German by Steven Sidore
Professor for Art History, Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg
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